Salvatore Scibona's Italian heritage has become a forceful background for his writing.
Living in Provincetown, Mass., a noted hangout for writers, he administers the writing fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center. This summer he is teaching a class in the novel at Harvard.
But the foremost event of his young life, a little more than three decades, is the publication of his debut novel, "The End," which has been hailed by a number of critics as a work worthy of Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and James Joyce.
Pretty heady stuff for a young guy on his way up.
Scibona is hesitant to accept such august compliments. In a phone interview from Boston, Scibona admitted to having never read Graham Greene but does have enormous admiration for the other novelists with whom he has been compared. He especially admires Bellow, but all of Bellow's characters are intellectuals, he said, and none of his are. "So, I had to find a way of engaging the metaphysical things in my characters' minds in a way that is true to them."
For his characters in "The End," he has tried to "find a voice that is sort of borrowed from Rocco (one of Scibona's characters) but retains the perspective of an omniscient narrator," Scibona said.
It took 10 careful years for Scibona to finish "The End." He wrote every day, spent a year doing research in Italy and dreamed of a book that would involve the reader in that world as if he lived in it. "The beginning was just the smallest germ of detail someone walking up a staircase nothing else."
After writing for five to six years, Scibona had six to seven characters in a milieu, "but what was happening was bogus. The only thing that was true were the characters. Over the years, I systematically changed the whole book except for the characters. It was a wholesale change of the character of the book itself."
According to Scibona, who writes in longhand rather than using a computer, he wrote as many as 100 pages a year, but kept throwing the oldest pages away. "Some people put throw-away novels in a drawer. I always had at least 200 pages, but thousands of pages ended up in the trash. I wouldn't want to go through that process again."
The book focuses on the state of Ohio on Aug. 15, 1953, but jumps around in time as it treats four main characters, an elderly abortionist, a teenage boy, a drapery seamstress and a jeweler, all possessing an odd connection with a crime that changes their lives. Much of the narrative concerns immigration, broken loyalties and racial hostility.
Although the first character to appear in the book is Rocco LaGrassa, the jeweler, he was the last character the author created. Scibona quotes Sigmund Freud saying that "the point of trauma is you never had lived completely through the experience, which is why you live it over and over, thus trapping yourself in it."
That statement fits nicely with the way Scibona wrote his book. "I didn't want to impose structure. It comes directly out of the characters' experience. I was trying to learn the book. It's like parenting, although I have no kids yet. You play this game of giving a child a lot of authority and trust to make decisions, but create circumstances of order to go with it."
Scibona scrupulously avoids making decisions for his characters. "If you make their decisions for them you rob the reader of the ability to be involved with them. Often, students say they prefer the criminal in a story but find the other characters less interesting. Maybe that's because the criminal makes up his mind to do something."
Even though he teaches writing classes, Scibona is doubtful that anyone can be taught to write. "You can save people a lot of time, though. A workshop can hold up a mirror to you and describe what you're doing to yourself. This is what the book is about. The novelist needs to know that. He's a citizen of the world he has created but may not yet know what it means or what it is really about."
Scibona considers "the best writing teacher to be less a scold and more of a companion. He should talk you through what you're already thinking. You don't want to take the sharp edges off a novel. You want to exaggerate it, to make it more strange than it is. You need a tolerance for what is inexcusable while you're writing it."
If Scibona writes while hiding his eyes from what he considers the one flaw of the book, he fails to realize that what seems a flaw is "indisputably true. Wrongness has a hard core about it. With my character, Mrs. Merino, I always tried to smooth out her undisciplined edges. Then I realized this is who she is and she dissolved into a completely different character."
Scibona gets inspiration from reading other novels, but not in a way that would cause him to write a book or a story like it. "Reading a long form novel gives you self-absorption," he said. "So, the day after that kind of reading experience, I can just let it rip."
Many times, second novels represent a huge test for the novelist, especially if the first was a bestseller or an award-winner, because the novelist loses confidence that he can do it again. Sometimes they wait so long that they never write again, such as J.D. Salinger, "Catcher in the Rye," or Harper Lee, "To Kill a Mocking Bird."
Sometimes a second or a third novel does not come close to being as good as the first, as with Alice Sebold's blockbuster, "The Lovely Bones," whose second novel, "The Almost Moon" was a critical failure.
Scibona is convinced the experience of writing a second novel would be different for him, because his first book "has a lot of weird strictures in it and was set in an older era. I don't know what it feels like to write in the present, the world I know first hand. I think it will be so different from the first that it might even seem like a first novel."Scibona relies heavily on his imagination rather than his own life, so he has trained himself to listen to other people, "the way they talk, what happens to them. I tend to record in my mind the stories older people tell. I grew up close to grandparents, who are all dead now. These people, who were first-generation immigrants, had experiences burnished by time. They were so grateful for everything they had."